Leaders of the Pack
A changing of the guard took place this season for the University of Sioux Falls men's golf team. With the graduation of three starters and the addition of four true freshmen, the Cougars are very young going into their first season competing in the hyper-competitive Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
Coluccio saw the writing on the wall last season.
"Brett (associate head golf coach) and I began the talks with Jordan and Levi last spring before the seniors graduated because we knew we were going to lose a strong group," she said.
"We knew the freshman class we had coming in was talented, but that team chemistry would dictate how well they would perform," Coluccio added. "Jordan and Levi have done a good job of creating a strong team atmosphere, with some help from us."
Smith and Mueller have fully embraced the leadership roles and enjoy showing the rookies what Cougar golf is all about.
"I think Jordan and I both just want to make the new guys feel welcome," Smith said. "We've been through a lot as Cougar golfers and we can teach them quite a bit by sharing our experiences with them."
"It's really important that we show leadership just in how we act as the Cougar golf team," Mueller added. "Whether it's taking ours hats off at the dinner table, ladies first, prayers before rounds and meals or fighting for strokes on the golf course."
Coach Coluccio couldn't have picked two better veterans to lead the pack.
Both Smith (basketball) and Mueller (track) arrived at USF as multi-sport freshman athletes unable to focus entirely on golf. When head men's basketball coach Chris Johnson and head track and field coach Gene Brooks "let them go," according to Coluccio, their golf games began to take off.
The teammates and close friends play the game very differently. Smith is known for his simple approach to the sport and a solid short game.
"He isn't a flashy player at all," Coluccio commented.
Mueller, on the other hand, is more of a feel player that his coach compared to Bubba Watson. There is no recipe for how he plays a given round or tournament.
"Jordan sees a shot and then performs it," Coluccio said. "He can put a lot of movement on the ball when he needs to and is very imaginative in his shot selections."
Throughout his collegiate career, Mueller has shined on the biggest stages. The Cougars were eligible to compete (but not take home any hardware) in the 2011-12 NSIC Men's Golf Championship. Mueller fired a 71-72- his lowest scores of the year- in the last two rounds to take sixth place overall (80-78-71-72=301).
Earlier this week, Mueller shot 71-82 (+9) in the first two rounds of the 2012-13 NSIC Men's Golf Championship to sit atop the leaderboard with a two-shot lead over Tyler Koivisto of St. Cloud State and Kowan O'Keefe of Minot State.
The Yankton native was named the NSIC Men's Golfer of the Week on Wednesday for his stellar efforts.
"The course was a beast, that's about the only word I can use," Mueller said on Wednesday. "Even in perfect weather, it was demanding from the tee box with slick greens and hazards on 17 of the 18 holes."
"You can blink, and all of a sudden be staring a 90 in the face," he added. "It was a continuous grind and on some of the holes, you had to take a bogey and sprint to the next tee box with relief."
Not far behind Mueller in the overall standings is the always steady Smith, who is four strokes back and tied for 8th with a score of 157 (79-78, +13).
"The course was beautiful," Smith said. "It was very demanding, and you had to remember to leave your cape in the car, because even Superman doesn't play there. The greens were like racetracks."
Smith led the Cougars last year with two tournament wins and four top-six finishes. The Washington High School product also carded a school-record 66 in the first round of the 2012 Bob Writz invitational.
Thanks to the solid play of Mueller and Smith, USF finished the fall portion of the NSIC tournament in second place with a team score of (315-317=632), only eight strokes back of overall leader St. Cloud State.
The first two rounds of the four-round event were contested at the par-72, 6,780-yard Classic at Madden's in Brainerd, Minn. The final 36 holes will be played April 13-14 at the Jewel Golf Club in Lake City, Minn.
One person that wasn't the least bit surprised by the seniors' strong showing this week was their coach.
"Not at all," Coluccio said. "Those two have traveled to every tournament in the three years that I have been here-they understand tournament golf, but more importantly, they have learned how to prepare for tournament golf."
"To them, the fall portion of the NSIC championship was just another tournament, just another week," she added.
Casual fans might not realize the ride that the USF men's golf team has taken over the last three seasons. During that span, the Cougars qualified for the 2010 NAIA national tournament at Deere Run (Ill.), played historic Pinehurst and faced off against the University of Arizona men's golf team on the Wildcats' home turf.
They have also used dodgeball for team-building purposes, gone to extreme lengths for Chick-fil-A sandwiches and produced a "Cougar Golf Rap" video that went viral on YouTube---not to mention having spring break nicknames such as Swifty (Smith) and Chomper (Mueller) bestowed upon them.
"It has been a rollercoaster ride for sure," Mueller said. "Jenny and Brett have done wonders for the squad. We have seen more amazing courses and been in bigger tournaments than I could have ever dreamed of when I was getting recruited four years ago."
"It's been a lot of extremely hard work and dedication, which has made me a better golfer and a more well-rounded human being," he added.
"It has really been the greatest experience of my life so far," Smith said. "My game has developed so much since coming to USF, and some of my best memories come from the trips we have taken and being around my teammates."
"To be a part of a team that for the last few years has developed a new reputation for USF golf and now being on the first team at USF to compete for an NSIC title is really special," he added.
With so many tournaments and road trips under their white belts, Smith and Mueller had a hard time selecting some of their favorite memories of their collegiate careers.
"My fondest memory at USF so far came during spring break last year when we played the Arizona Wildcats," Smith recalled. "I was in a foursome with Jordan, Troy Klongerbo and a kid from Arizona."
"The ninth hole I chipped in for birdie and Jordan, Troy and I started jumping up and down giving each other chest bumps, like we had just won the national championship," he said. "It was pure joy and I'm glad I got to share it with two of my best friends."
Mueller listed competing at the NAIA national tournament and winning the NAIA long drive competition as two of his best memories. "Winning the longest drive was something unexpected and special that I will never forget," Mueller said.
"Our spring break trips are also way up there because they've just been a lot of fun and allow us to build relationships outside of being competitive, because we are ALWAYS competitive," he added.
With just one spring season left in their careers, Mueller and Smith have set high goals for both themselves and their young teammates. They want to win the NSIC championship and qualify for NCAA D-II regional competition.
"My goal for the spring is to win the NSIC," Smith said. "Thankfully, we have put ourselves in a good position to make a run come next April."
"These young guys on our team are learning the grind faster than me or Levi ever did and posting some great scores," Mueller added. "We just need to continue to make each other more consistent and we will be right where we want to be for next spring."
The Cougars wrap up their fall slate this weekend at the Missouri Western Invitational and will open the spring season in the hunt for the NSIC championship.
What Jordan and Levi hope to teach their rookie teammates:
Jordan: "That being a good player and having a competitive team is important, but that life is more than golf. Try your best, and when its not going your way, you have people that love you no matter what and at the end of the day its just a number on a piece of paper."
Levi: "The thing I hope to show them the most is that golf is not life. There's so many more important things in life than what you shoot on the golf course, but this is a great opportunity to form bonds with teammates, and we are really blessed to have this opportunity."